What’s A Pro-Life Democrat To Do?

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I’m a pro-life Democrat. You wouldn’t know it from the positions of party leaders, but there are millions of us. Joe Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment last week signaled that, whoever wins the party nomination, millions of pro-life Democrats are unlikely to have their views represented in 2020. Indeed, activists appear to want to drive pro-life Democrats out of the party entirely.

What in the world is a pro-life Democrat to do? I second what John Fea said a couple months ago in a post about Jimmy Carter’s brand of pro-life politics: “I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:”

1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.

2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights.  (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).

3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.

4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

I think this is exactly right. To put it simply, let’s unpack the phrase, pro-life Democrat. I’m pro-life because I’m a Christian and cannot be otherwise. I’m a pro-life Democrat because I don’t believe patriarchy and free market radicalism have anything to do with protecting life; indeed, they are inimical to it.

I can’t make common cause with the right-wing anti-abortion movement. It is thoroughly embedded in the broader activist right, which tends toward dishonesty, racism, and sexism. The imperatives of capitalist extremism govern their activism, so that policies that would reduce abortions are not pursued simply because such policies would upset wealthy people.

But before I become too critical of right-wing activists for letting capital dictate the extent of their efforts against abortion, I can, as a pro-life Democrat, ponder my own similar position and my own complicity. Do I not speak up for fear of causing a break with Democratic activists with whom I otherwise agree? Do I fail to speak with appropriate moral conviction for fear of electoral or social consequences?

I do not believe the right-wing anti-abortion movement is promoting a helpful pro-life agenda, nor do I think overturning Roe v. Wade will usher in the utopia they imagine. But my alienation from the most viable and visible pro-life movement does not free me to sit on my hands. In fact, it adds to my responsibility to act creatively to protect life outside those right-wing channels.

I don’t pretend to know at this point what that should look like. I am already trying to pursue a lifestyle that I believe aligns with a Christian ethic of life, but I do not intend to trumpet those personal choices here. In this case I’m thinking more of public advocacy and financial support. What organizations are worthy of our money, our voices, our retweets? Yeah, I said it, retweets matter!

If any readers have given significant attention to these things or are already supporting an organization that you recommend, I’d like to hear about it. I’d like to put my money where my mouth is. Given the data we have on why women choose abortion, it seems intuitively obvious to me that we can significantly reduce abortions simply by empowering poor women. Imagine that.

Abortion Concern In Evangelicalism Is Primarily A Rhetorical Move

I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).

But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.

As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.

A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:

77% approve of Trump’s job performance.

75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.

3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.

38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”

71% support building a wall on the border.

92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].

Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.

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*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.

Is This A Normal Southern Baptist Church?

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Stephanie McCrummen’s profile of a southern baptist church in Alabama is getting some attention this morning. I’m not sure what to make of it. She talked to a lot of people in the congregation. Here’s an excerpt:

What was important was not the character of the president but his positions, they said, and one mattered more than all the others. “Abortion,” said Linda, whose eyes teared up when she talked about it.

Trump was against it. It didn’t matter that two decades ago he had declared himself to be “very pro-choice.” He was now saying “every life totally matters,” appointing antiabortion judges and adopting so many antiabortion policies that one group called him “the most pro-life president in history.”

It was the one political issue on which First Baptist had taken a stand, a sin one member described as “straight from the pits of Hell,” and which Crum had called out when he preached on “Thou shalt not kill” the Sunday before, reminding the congregation about the meaning of his tiny lapel pin. “It’s the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks,” he had said.

There was Terry Drew, who sat in the seventh pew on the left side, who knew and agreed with Trump’s position, and knew that supporting him involved a blatant moral compromise.

“I hate it,” he said. “My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this.”

The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as “sinister” and “evil” and “I’d say, of Satan.”

“She hates me,” Terry said, sitting in Crum’s office one day. “She has contempt for people like me, and Clay, and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.”

As he saw it, there was the issue of Trump’s character, and there was the issue of Terry’s own extinction, and the choice was clear.

“He’s going to stick to me,” Terry said.

So many members of First Baptist saw it that way.

There was Jan Carter, who sat in the 10th pew center, who said that supporting Trump was the only moral thing to do.

“You can say righteously I do not support him because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,” she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward “a civil war on our shores.”

There was her friend Suzette, who sat in the fifth pew on the right side, and who said Trump might be abrasive “but we need abrasive right now.”

And there was Sheila Butler, who sat on the sixth pew on the right side, who said “we’re moving toward the annihilation of Christians.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how McCrummen came to write about this particular church and what her own background is. If this was an academic religious studies article, it might be preceded by some elaborate handwringing about her own beliefs and cultural location and how those affected her work and interactions. Instead, because this is a profile in the Washington Post, the reporter is more or less invisible even as she crafts a narrative with a strong undertone of contempt. I’m not saying the contempt isn’t deserved, but I think there are real ethical questions here.

As for the congregation, the main thing I wonder is if it is representative of southern baptist churches today. It seems like many of the most outlandish quotes came from elderly people. Whether it’s representative or not, for this congregation we can say this:

–Abortion is really important.

–Hillary hatred is alive and well.

–There is an enormous amount of fear about Christians losing their place in America, or even their lives.

–Theological ignorance, even to the point of heresy, is common. Christian nationalism heightens their fears and turns them away from Christianity.

–Many feel conflicted about supporting Trump, but not necessarily for the reasons anti-Trump people oppose him. Even people who expressed discomfort did not name his racism as one of their qualms. Others suggested that racism was one of the things they most appreciated about him.

So: fear, racism, ignorance, Christian nationalism, and some concern for the unborn. It’s a damning portrait.

Sexist Purity Culture is Not Pro-Life

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Madeline Runkles

Some of you may have heard of this story out of Hagerstown, Maryland. A girl at a conservative Christian high school became pregnant and, being a good evangelical kid, she decided to keep the baby. Today in the Washington Post, she describes what happened next:

I was not allowed to attend school as my principal and the board decided if I would be allowed to return at all, and I would be stripped of all leadership positions. I wasn’t allowed to attend sports games to watch my brother play basketball or baseball, and I wouldn’t be allowed on campus until after the baby was born. I would be allowed to receive my diploma, but I would have to take all my classes at home, and wouldn’t be allowed to walk at graduation.

This felt overly harsh to me and my parents, so my dad asked the principal and the board to reconsider. He argued that the only difference between me and other seniors who had broken the school’s moral code in various ways was that I was pregnant, and they were trying to hide me away because they were embarrassed by my visible sin. My principal and the board finally changed their decision: I would be allowed back to finish the year with my classmates, but I couldn’t be in any leadership positions in school clubs, and I still couldn’t walk at graduation.

In the meantime, I assume all the senior boys who have been violating the school covenant by looking at pornography are now marked with scarlet letters and will not be allowed to walk at graduation either. What’s that, they are walking? Hmmm.

Runkles concludes:

When girls like me who go to pro-life schools make a brave pro-life decision, we shouldn’t be hidden away in shame. The sin that got us into this situation is not worth celebrating, but after confession and forgiveness take place, we should be supported and treated like any other student. What we are going through is tough enough. Having to deal with the added shame of being treated like an outcast is nothing that any girl should have to go through.

Many of the people in my town and at my school who had supported me and my family have turned on us since I went public, feeling that all the scrutiny was hurting Heritage Academy’s reputation. We started getting nasty emails, angry posts on social media and rude remarks in person. People who had been supportive before are now telling me to shut up, suck it up and grow up. Because of the volume of anger from the community, my parents have decided to keep my brother and me at home for the rest of the school year.

I’m still not allowed to walk at graduation this month, but I still wouldn’t change my decision to keep my baby — a boy, who I want to name Greyson. Even though it’s been hard losing support in my town, even though my school has drawn out my punishment over months, I want other girls in my position to know you don’t have to give in to pressure or fear of judgment.

Amen to that.